A bulk of cannabis users will attest to the fact that weed can indeed bring people together and help better foster a sense of mutual understanding and respect with one another. Science is just now catching up to in regard to a number of long-held anecdotal understandings surrounding cannabis use, with cannabis and empathy among one of the more recent topics of interest.
Namely, a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research took a closer look at regular cannabis users, ultimately finding that they do indeed tend to have a better understanding of the emotions of others.
The study, titled “Empathy-related differences in the anterior cingulate functional connectivity of regular cannabis users when compared to controls,” also found, through brain imaging tests, that cannabis users had stronger connectivity with brain regions involved with sensing the emotional states of others.
Analyzing Empathy Through Test Scores and Brain Scans
In the study abstract, investigators note reports of cannabis having an effect on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure in the brain responsible for mediating the empathic response. To test whether or not cannabis use has an effect on the ACC and empathy, researchers compared the psychometric scores of empathy subscales between 85 regular cannabis users and 51 non-consumers as a control group.
Researchers applied the Cognitive and Affective Empathy Test, analyzing the empathic ability of subjects. Ultimately, cannabis users showed higher scores in the Emotional Comprehension scales of the psychometric testing than the control group.
The study also included a subset of 46 users and 34 non-users who underwent MRI exams to examine the functional connectivity (FC) of the ACC in cannabis users compared to controls. Upon analysis, regular cannabis users showed greater connectivity between the ACC and the pre-posterior central gyrus, a part of the frontal lobe. Cannabis users also showed greater connectivity between the ACC and the left anterior insula, which supports subjective feeling states, than the control group.
Cannabis Use as a Means to Increased Empathy
In examining the Cognitive and Affective Empathy Test findings, researchers note, “Emotional comprehension is a construct of cognitive empathy related to the capacity to recognize and comprehend others’ emotional states.” They also cite that this difference is consistent with previous research on adjacent topics, notably that cannabis use tends to correlate with a higher ability to detect others’ feelings and create a greater understanding of emotions and a more empathetic predisposition to others’ situations.
“This difference in emotional comprehension related to their representation of the emotional state of the other, could be linked to the greater FC between the anterior cingulate cortex with the bilateral somatomotor cortex (SMC) in regular cannabis users when compared to non-users,” researchers wrote.
Since the ACC is one of the main areas possessing B1 receptors, along with being heavily involved in the representation of affective states of others, researchers affirmed their beliefs that the difference shown by regular cannabis users in MRI scans and emotional comprehension scores “could be related to the use of cannabis,” though they said they cannot discount the possibility that these differences were present before the use of cannabis began.
Another Affirmation of a Long-Held Truth Within the Cannabis Community
“Although further research is needed, these results open an exciting new window for exploring the potential effects of cannabis in aiding treatments for conditions involving deficits in social interactions, such as sociopathy, social anxiety, and avoidant personality disorder, among others,” said said co-author Víctor Olalde-Mathieu, Ph.D., of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Indeed, the research may be another step forward in looking at cannabis, specifically its effect on the mind and social functioning. As researchers noted in the study, their findings also echo previous research looking similarly at the relationship between cannabis use and empathy.
One study published last year in the journal Scientific Reports measured prosocial behavior, empathy, moral harmlessness and moral fairness among cannabis consumers and non-users, finding that consumers had higher scores. The two groups had no differences in measurements of anger, hostility, trust of others, facial threat interpretation, extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, or moral decision making founded on principles of respecting authority and preserving the concept of purity.